You read about it in the expat books but it doesn’t prepare you much. You hear about the problems you will have with your maid but it’s always from the point of view of the employer, poor victim taken advantage of by conniving women. You read about the drama they will create, the stories they will come up with to get days off or a few rupees out of you. Then you read “White Tiger” and hope that your driver won’t stab you to death, and “The Space Between Us” and understand that house help should never trust anyone.
It is rare that you hear the other side of the story, and when you do, “people” tell you that it’s most likely made up. My one good friend here seems to see both sides of the fence. She talks about the young woman who worked in her store, disappeared for a month and came back wanting her job, but also describes that another young employee passed out in the store because she had had no food for a while. My friend now always brings more food than necessary for her own lunch and makes sure her employee gets fed. She told me that “their lives are so complicated”.
I am now in the middle of this complication. No, not the middle, I am on the sideline, watching a young widow cry. I can ignore her if I want. It would be easy to simply not talk to her anymore. But I can’t. I just cannot walk past her when she has tears rolling down her cheeks. I have no idea what she says to me. She cries and speaks in Kannada and sobs in my arms. Her hair smells of coconut oil. I have been warned that Indian women can be very emotional and cry at anything. But sobbing on command would require good acting skills. And I am tired of cynicism. I am tried of sarcasm. I am tired.
She’s a young mother of three who works across the street. I have met two of her kids, the two youngest. I do not know how her husband died. I suspect she liked him quite a bit since she has his name tattooed on her wrist. His brother has turned into a living nightmare. He harasses her constantly, destroys her belongings when he’s drunk. The rest of the family is of no help since her status is to be invisible, silent, a nobody. Remember this is a country where a (not so) long time ago, widows were expected to perform Sati, to be burned alive with their husband during cremation. We hear about the status of daughters-in-law in India in all social classes, engineers who leave their job after marriage because it would make the man look like he cannot provide, women who never come out of the house anymore. You’re appalled, but it’s just in books, on paper. When it hits you in real life, it’s more difficult to comprehend. Though I didn’t get hit, she did.
Last week, the cretin broke her stove. In India, without a stove, you don’t eat much and neither do your children, and tempering with propane gas tanks is dangerous. We offered financial help. She was so confused she didn’t know how to respond. She cried, she refused and said that no one in her own family had ever provided help for her.
Today she was crying again. I got into action.
- Call Sathya and figure out what the problem is. The problem is the same it was last week. Her bother in law is an abusive jerk. He should thank the gods he doesn’t live in Texas. Yes I am that mad.
- Post on the expat women’s forum asking for leads. I got many. Thank you.
- Have my maid cook her lunch since she has a miserable little tiffin box and was asking for “utta”, Kannada for food. She has enough for her kids for tonight.
- Spend some time with her and our maid, sitting on the floor, listening to her tell her story again, crying again, thanking me again. They were using the word “Madam” a lot so I know they were talking about me!
- Listen to our maid on the way back explaining that being a widow in India sucks. She should know, she’s a widow too, but she lives far from her in-laws. She told me they are not nice to her, except one.
- Tweet to the Bangalore Police. They are super efficient when they want. They tweeted back, emailed me, called me, unfortunately asking for her precise address, which I do not have and would not give them anyway. I gave them her number.
- Later bring the lady the phone numbers of organizations I have collected. Try and explain that she can get help from them.
- Get a very grateful thank you, and a big smile, since she got a call from the maid of a French lady I talked to today who lives in a village north of Bangalore and may be able to get her a job.
- Go home and write a blog post. Because this needs to change. The status of women needs to change. Do I have the right to ask that another culture changes? Yes. When it condones violence. Keeping an entire class of people in fear, in tears, in poverty, in shame is not acceptable.
A month ago the BBC released “India’s Daughter”. It’s time to produce “India’s Daughter-in-Law”.